Take the League of Women Voters. Take them on a long walk off a short pier. I've watched debates sponsored by the alleged gold standard of political watchdog groups in this town for seven years. There's one thing of which you can be certain if the League is involved in a debate: It'll be BORING. They always ask cutting-edge questions like "How can we keep young people in the county?" They throw up more softballs than Kerry Wood in the Cubs' last playoff game.
Negative political advertising is the backbone of our democracy. There, I've said it.
Negative ads are the only time people start paying attention. Voter turnout decreases with each election, it seems, but the few lazy SOBs who do bother to vote are often motivated by negative ads.
Take the ad running right now against county executive candidate Dan Onorato. It makes it look like City Controller Tom Flaherty blamed Onorato for the city's budget debacle. Of course, Flaherty never blamed Onorato; he just railed against fiscal imprudence. But it does make you wonder whether Onorato, once city council's finance committee chairman, deserves any of the blame.
It's also worth considering whether the ad is patently misleading and therefore taints County Executive Jim Roddey's re-election campaign. Roddey claims to be a straight shooter, but he may be firing trick bullets. Still, at least his ad stirs the brain into actually paying attention. How else are we going to get the average apathetic dolt to remove his rapidly expanding posterior from the La-Z-Boy long enough to pull a lever behind the curtain?
Evil Republican ad genius John Brabender heads up the Pittsburgh-based political advertising firm Brabender-Cox. (Mr. Cox doesn't actually work there anymore, but I think Brabender keeps the name because of what it implies about his firm's abilities to do whatever is necessary to the opposition.)
In a telephone interview from Washington, Brabender defends the tradition of aggressive campaign advertising. "Running for office is putting your name up for a job, and with any job you need to know the good and bad before you hire someone," he says. "That's why companies check references."
And who is going to say anything negative about a candidate except his opponent? "It's not like a candidate is going to wake up one day and say, 'I lied about going to college,'" Evil John points out. (By the way, no one actually calls him Evil John. I just have this obsessive penchant for making up nicknames and hoping they stick).
Believe it or not, Brabender says there are rules governing negative ads. Or at least rules to which he adheres. Such ads have to be based in fact and verifiable and not completely tasteless. And every candidate knows that if the negative ad is full of falsehoods, it will be skewered by the media and his opponent. One current irony of negative ads is that if a do-gooder group says an ad is misleading, the original target of the attack will use the do-gooder group's quotes in an attack ad against the originator. Sometimes, the target will exaggerate the do-gooder group's claims, thereby creating a misleading negative ad from a public criticism about a misleading negative ad. It's a vicious circle.
Does that make John Brabender's job some sort of circle jerk? Brabender does something that many politicians do not do: He gives credit to the voting public, minuscule though it may be, for having a brain cell or two.
"People understand that just like any other advertising, they're not going to blindly accept these ads as fact," he says. "They'll scrutinize it, decide if it's relevant, and that's a good thing."
Yes, some negative ads can be downright hateful. Lee Atwater's legendary Willie Horton ad comes to mind. Like his boss, Bush One, Atwater claimed to convert to a kinder, gentler politico over time and said he regretted the Horton commercial, before heading off to that big negative-ad sausage-grinding factory in the sky. But the campaign of Michael Dukakis had a much bigger problem than Willie Horton. It was Michael Dukakis (ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz).
So stop your preaching from the high ethical mountaintop, you know-it-all sanctimonious do-gooders. Short of searing everyone's butt with a red-hot "rock the vote" branding iron, negative ads are the best voter motivator since candidates were actually worth voting for. And how often is the latter likely to occur?